3 Ways to Understand and Overcome Shame

“Even when I’m doing better, it’s like there’s chained to my ankle a dead body that I’m just dragging around with me.”

Earlier this week I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR. This particular show consisted of two people — Maddy Rich & Julia Sinn — talking about their battles with anorexia.

I’ve never struggled with an eating disorder, but Maddy used a metaphor when talking about her struggle that really struck a chord: “Even when I’m doing better, it’s like there’s chained to my ankle, a dead body that I’m just dragging around with me.”

That’s a feeling I can relate to.

I cam relate because shame has been a dominant theme in my life.

It’s the dead body I drag around with me everywhere I go.

It would probably surprise my friends and family to hear that. It’s not the sort of thing you go around discussing everyday, you know?

People freak out a little when a conversation looks like this:

Friend: “Hey! How are you?”

Me: “Not great. I felt like a total fraud when I was hanging out with Bill and Elaine earlier. I disowned myself and pretended to be someone I wasn’t in order to get them to like me.”

….or like this:

Friend: “Dude, what’s up? What’s new in your life?”

Me: “Not much is new. I’m still struggling to escape the feeling that I’m not doing enough and am failing in every area of my life. What’s up with you?”

It’s awkward. It catches you off guard. You’re never ready for it.

But you know what?

Screw social conventions.

We need to talk about shame.

Why Shame?

Shame — avoiding shame — has had a strong grip on me since I was a kid. I’m part of a large family — nine kids in total — and that many siblings creates a complex web of interactions.

I’ve always been driven to please others and I’ve hated letting people down or looking stupid in any way.

Shame is a universal social emotion which we’ve all experienced, but it’s also hard to nail down an exact definition. Experts like Brené Brown and Thomas Scheff agree that shame affects all us. Yet in Qualitative Inquiry, Scheff notes that shame is “the least understood emotion.”

Part of the reason for the haze that surrounds shame is due to its frequent confusion with guilt.

Guilt and shame often occur in similar situations, but the messages they carry are entirely different. One of the best distinctions I’ve ever heard was made by Ian Cron in his Typology podcast (paraphrased below…I was listening while driving…):

“Guilt is the belief or conviction that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is the fundamental belief that there is something wrong with you.

Cron’s distinction highlights why shame is so harmful and insidious. Guilt speaks about what you’ve done; Shame speaks to who you are.

Guilt is uncomfortable. Shame is destructive.

The discomfort caused by guilt can often produce motivation to change for the better. On the other hand, shame carries with it a damning message of inadequacy.

Guilt says, “You shouldn’t have eaten that second bowl of ice cream. You’re going to regret that later when you’re not feeling well.”

Shame says, “You fat pig. No wonder you’re so overweight and ugly. It’s no surprise it’s impossible for people to love you.”

Guilt says, “You lied to your spouse. That was wrong. You shouldn’t have done that.”

Shame says, “You lied to your spouse. You’re a deceitful, twisted person. You’d better hope no one sees you for who you are, or you’ll never be loved again.”

Dealing with Shame

I’m indebted to Brené Brown for her clear explanation of our typical response to shame in her recent book, Daring Greatly. One of Brown’s helpful tips for understanding shame is to view it as “the fear of disconnection.

Shame is a feeling of being unworthy of connection, love or belonging.

According to Brown, we tend to react to experiencing shame in three ways:

  • Move Away — we withdraw into hiding. We become silent or secretive, pulling away from those around us. Since we are unworthy of connection, we cut ourselves off as a protective measure.
  • Move Toward — we move towards others in an attempt to please or appease other. We may not be worthy of love or connection, but perhaps if we work just a little harder people will keep us around.
  • Move Against — we become aggressive and confrontational. Because we feel ashamed, we seek to exert our control and, if necessary, cause others to feel shame as well (misery loves company).

We likely use all of the above at different times and in different situations. As I read through each of the three, one sticks out far and away as my favorite response to experiencing shame.

What is your default response to experiencing shame?

I default to the second option, Moving Toward.

It’s been the story of my life. I can always find something that I feel like I’m failing at or not doing well enough.

I live with this constant sense that I’m not doing enough. I feel it in the pit of my stomach. This constant uneasiness. This baseline of anxiety that won’t go away.

Every time I make eye contact with a strange, it’s there: “What are they thinking about me? Do I look stupid? Is there something on my face?”

Every time I’m having a conversation with someone: “Don’t say something stupid. Crap, they’re looking at me funny. They’re hesitating. I must have misspoke. How can I fix this? Adjust! Adjust!”

I’ve developed a real-time ability to pick up on how my presence and message is being received by someone. If I perceive it’s not going well, I then make tweaks and adjustments to affect their view.

In other words — I’m really good at pandering to a crowd.

On a recent podcast I heard Jeff Goins say “I think a good question is do I ever not feel like a fraud?”

That about sums it up. Because of my constant struggle with shame I feel pressure to make up for my inadequacies. In my “moving towards” people, I transform myself into whatever image I think they are most likely to accept and love.

It’s a natural defense mechanism, but it really comes back to bite you in the butt.

In his book Red Like Blood, Joe Coffey describes it like this:

“The most fundamental problem is that my deep need to feel loved is in direct conflict with my fear of being known [due to my shame]…It is like being made to live in water and not being able to swim. If you really know me, will you love me? I doubt it because, put in your place, I wouldn’t love me either. I long for the experience of really being loved and yet all I give is the image of myself I hope others will find most attractive. The love I feel from others is muted at best, simply because I know that the person they love is not the person I am…I merely pretend to be me so I can pretend to be loved, and I starve.” (emphasis mine)


How can we learn to deal with shame in a way that causes connection rather than disconnection; authenticity rather than deception?

Breaking the Power of Shame

One of the challenges of dealing with shame is its constant assault on all of us.

I believe that therein also lies the key.

Shame affects all of us.

Every. Single. One.

Shame is part of the human condition, and recognizing and acknowledging this is the first step towards freedom.

We all struggle with shame, and we can use this common bond as a bridge to building empathy.

If shame is poison coursing through humanity’s veins, empathy is the antidote. — Tweet This!

It’s in our common brokenness — our humanity — that we can extend understanding and love to one another.

How can we — as individuals and as a society — become more empathetic?

Make Time to Listen to Yourself

Shame’s message is relentless.

Every single interaction with another person creates an opportunity for shame to speak up.

If we’re ever to learn to subdue shame’s voice, we must learn to listen to ourselves.

Do you notice when shame’s subtle whispers begin in your head? Do you recognize the physical symptoms that take hold of you?

To undercut shame’s power in our lives, we must begin to work at recognizing these moments and symptoms.

Once we become aware of shame’s presence, we then have a choice on how we will respond — will we believe shame’s message? Are the expectations shame is speaking over us realistic? Are they what we truly desire?

Practice like journaling, centering/contemplative prayer, or meditation may be especially helpful tools to grow in self awareness and sensitivity to what’s happening in your heart and mind.

Make Time to Listen to Others

Empathy is social.

It’s a response to the emotions and feelings of other people. Researchers have identified two distinct forms of empathy:

  • Affective Empathy — physical sensations in response to others’ emotions)
  • Cognitive Empathy — the ability to identify and understand others’ emotions

Whichever you experience more, both are triggered by an interaction with another person.

If we wish to become more empathetic, we need to slow down and truly learn to listen to others.

No agenda.

No formulating our response while they are talking.

No end destination or goal.

Just listen. Pause, and listen.

Need a simple first step?

Invite a friend — or someone who you want to become a good friend — over for a cup of coffee today. Focus on asking questions; let them do at least two-thirds of the talking.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Be the Initiator

Vulnerability begets vulnerability.

The modern world makes it so easy to live in a continually disconnected state. Our phones, tablets and televisions are filled with apps and programs that are designed to be addictive.

Social media can trick us into thinking we’re closely connected to other people, but knowing about someone’s life is not the same as being part of their life.

We need to be brave enough to trust people.

Trust is a prerequisite for empathy, and developing trust takes time. It also requires someone to take that first, terrifying step of opening up their heart to another person.

We’ve all walked different roads.

We’ve been beaten, bruised and burned by other people, yet we can’t let the wounds of our past dictate the direction of our future.

If you long for connection with others…

If you long to see shame’s power broken in your life…

If you long to love and be loved…

…then the only way to get there is to open up.

Vulnerability is a courageous act. It’s on par with running in to a burning building.

Just as a firefighter might save a helpless civilian, having the courage to be vulnerable might save our souls.

Photo by Andrew Gaines on Unsplash

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